Create Your Own Writing Retreat While in Self-Isolation

Writing tips
C.S. Hanson

Dreaming of flying to Tuscany for an idyllic writing retreat? Here’s a guide to setting up a retreat in your own home.

A retreat is when we get away from the stuff that’s getting in the way of writing. It’s an opportunity to slow down and open up to creative possibilities. When a pandemic is wreaking havoc on our lives, it may seem like a fantasy to go on a writing retreat. Yes, it’s a fantasy. If not now, when? Let’s get started.

Every day, for 14 days, write for 90 minutes with no distractions.

To prepare:

  • Determine the best time, each day, to retreat. Same time, same place! You’ll be expected in a chair, at a table or desk.
  • Bring a notebook and tools: Pens, pencils, color crayons. If you use a laptop, bring it.
  • Leave behind your cell phone. Emailing, texting, and chatting are not allowed.

Welcome. Day one. Look around. Are there forests or mountains? Rivers, lakes, or an ocean? Are you staying in a room with five-star amenities, a castle surrounded by a moat or in a rustic lodge in the woods? Will you take hikes or go kayaking? Will a chef prepare gluten-free pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast? Does the barista specialize in what can only be described as the perfect matcha latte? It’s that kind of retreat.

Set an intention. Want to start on a new project? Resurrect an old draft? Unearth a story you have always wanted to tell? All genres welcome.

At every session:

  • Set a timer for 60 seconds. Do nothing. Just get used to this being your time.
  • Next, set the timer for 89 minutes. Write until the timer rings. Your retreat will be waiting for you when you return to your next 90-minute session (whether tomorrow or later today).
  • View writing as a practice. The practice doesn’t care whether you’re a newbie or a big-time awards winner. What’s required is that you show up. It wants your uninterrupted attention.
  • In your notebook, remind yourself of the alternate world you’ve entered. What do you hear, see, and smell?

Tools to nudge your practice:

  • Write by hand. It’s close to your heart, away from the screen, far from Insta and Zoom.
  • Dream a little. What is the life dream of your protagonist? What is your life dream as a writer?
  • Write a letter to yourself. What surprises you about the surroundings you’ve chosen?
  • Write badly. This is my personal favorite. It helps me get off the Highway of Perfection, which never leads to anything original. Writing badly usually results in something interesting. You’ll see.

Make discoveries:

  • Meet someone new. Select a biography of someone living or dead. Each day, read a little about that person. Before the libraries in New York City closed, I checked out A Private View, by Irene Mayer Selznick. During self-isolation, Irene began to feel like a new friend as I learned about her life growing up in glamorous Hollywood under the roof of highly protective parents. Who’s your new friend?
  • Find a talisman. Confined to your home, look for an object that will serve as a reminder of this retreat. My talisman is a little blue ceramic statue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. William the hippo has been sitting on a bookshelf for years. I finally noticed him.
  • Be playful. Imagine you and your new pals jumping into your yellow sports car, putting the top down, driving into the village for gelato. Wait, that’s my dream. What’s yours?

When challenged:

  • Visit the donkeys. At a spiritual center in Northwestern Connecticut, I learned how these hard-working creatures face fear. Despite spindly legs, donkeys carry heavy loads, often traversing dangerous mountain paths. Faced with fear, a donkey stands still, digs its heels in the ground, and takes the time to discern its next move. It doesn’t run away. Now, when I feel overwhelmed, I try to slow down and take in the situation before doing something rash. (For inspiration: The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World, by Andy Merrifield.)
  • Feel like scrapping a project? Remind yourself of your original intention. Review your draft, circle what’s working. What remains exciting? Are there nuggets to work with? If not, say goodbye to a project by writing it a letter, thanking it for the journey thus far. It might just speak back to you! If not, start something new.
  • Stuck? Let me share a secret. Every day, I color like a child.  Why?  Because it’s fun.  No one judges it. It frees me, and I never stay stuck for long.

A coloring by playwright C.S. Hanson

Ding! It’s Day 14. How has this retreat helped you in your practice? Make note of the discoveries. Acknowledge that during a very unusual time in history, you went on a writing retreat in your own home.

Congratulations! You’re invited to another idyllic writing retreat far from the demands of your day. It starts tomorrow. You know the drill.

About the author

C.S. Hanson

C.S. Hanson is a playwright living in New York City. The article is based on her experience leading a workshop at the New York Society Library during which she guided writers in creating their own retreat within the library’s confines.